The White House is developing a short list of possible Supreme Court nominees so President Bush can move swiftly if a justice retires at the end of June, when the Court breaks for its summer recess, according to sources involved in the selection process.
Bush met with top advisers last month, and they discussed possible nominees if a Supreme Court vacancy occurs.
He told White House Counsel Fred Fielding and other administration lawyers that he wanted to nominate a woman or a minority to the Court, and his legal team has narrowed its focus to a half-dozen contenders, sources said.
Most of the potential nominees have been well-vetted by the White House, which conducted extensive background checks and interviews in 2005, when it was searching for replacements for Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
The White House is not expecting a retirement, but it wants to be ready if a surprise announcement occurs, sources said.
It's widely considered that the most likely candidates for retirement are liberal Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, although both have said emphatically that they do not plan to step down.
The White House typically prepares an informal list of possible replacements every spring in case justices announce they are retiring at the end of the Court's term. But there's more urgency now.
With the heated political climate -- and with Bush's approval ratings still low -- advisers believe they cannot afford any missteps with the Supreme Court if a vacancy were to occur, sources said.
To that end, advisers are focusing on possible nominees who are believed to be solid judicial conservatives and would galvanize the base at a time when Bush desperately needs its support.
Conservatives who have grown disillusioned with Bush on Iraq, spending and immigration believe his nominations of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito are the one bright spot of his presidency.
Roberts and Alito have clearly helped move the Court in a more conservative direction this year. But the Court remains closely divided -- 5-4 -- on controversial social issues such as abortion, affirmative action and presidential power, and conservatives don't always carry the day.
The Court now has four solid judicial conservatives in Roberts, Alito and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Justice Anthony Kennedy typically sides with them, but not always. One additional vote could turn the Court firmly to the right.
That means the stakes for the next nomination could not be higher -- as both sides are acutely aware.
Leading Senate Democrats are already warning against solidly conservative nominees, and that could make confirmation difficult in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Still, some of Bush's political advisers believe he would be better off tapping a strong conservative who would rally the base -- especially a nominee with a compelling life story who would be difficult for moderate Senate Democrats to oppose.
In that camp are federal appeals court Judges Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown. Both were filibustered by Senate Democrats after Bush nominated them as appellate judges and were eventually confirmed after Senate leaders struck a compromise on judicial nominations.